Colorado State University Professor: Mothers Who Don’t Always Show Happiness May be Better Moms

Colorado State University’s parenting expert, Zeynep Biringen, has some advice for mothers this Mother’s Day: It’s OK to not be happy. Biringen, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, says allowing children to see a range of genuine emotion helps them to develop into adults who can show their emotions appropriately.

“There has been much emphasis in the media on happiness – how to increase one’s happiness, how to reframe negatives in one’s life and be positive, how to raise happy children and so on,” Biringen said. “I believe that in our society there is too much emphasis on and even a forcing of happiness. The result may be that mothers feel guilty if they or their children are not always happy. They may even deny the experience of a variety of emotions that are important for children to see and experience.”

Biringen, an expert in emotional availability, has five top suggestions for what mothers can do to relieve that guilt and not fall into the trap of believing they must always appear to be happy to set a positive example for their children:

1. Be real. It is not the counting of blessings or showing a happy face that is important; it is being genuine in expressions of emotions and gently straightforward with children about those emotions.

2. Be there. Children need to feel that their mothers are emotionally there for them and in the moment, physically and emotionally. If children are going through a difficult time, guide them gently through it without overpowering them.

3. Be expressive. Show comfort in and feel comfortable experiencing a range of emotions, not just happiness. It helps children to see how their parents regulate positive and negative emotions. It’s also important for children to see small amounts of conflict in the home so they understand and learn to regulate a variety of emotions. While mothers should try to limit the display of negative emotions, it is important for children to see their parents experience emotions other than happiness.

4. Be understanding. Appreciate and validate children’s range of emotions – positive and negative. Helping children resolve their negative feelings is an important aspect of child development.

5. Be nurturing. Although generally happy mothers are more likely to pass on to their children ways of being happy themselves, scientific researchers indicate that the most secure children with the healthiest relationships with their parents are those with mothers who are not extremely positive or negative. Mothers who are positive in a low-key way and who are sensitive to the child’s emotional cues may be more successful than mothers who only display happiness.

Biringen is the author of “The Universal Language of Love: Assessing Relationships Through the Science of Emotional Availability,” which shares information on relationships, including mother-child relationships, based on 20 years of research in more than 24 countries.

The book is available through and

The Department of Human Development and Family Studies is part of the College of Applied Human Sciences.